Doherty’s Chapter 8 in outline & Review of McGrath’s review

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by Neil Godfrey

11 am 18th July 2011, Revised the section “What the Chapter is about”

James McGrath begins his review of chapter 8 protesting that Doherty is placing a different interpretation on some known and agreed facts in order to argue a mythicist case.

The chapter gets several things right and mentions important information about the context of earliest Christianity – and yet consistently manages to interpret those details as leading to mythicism.

It sounds as if McGrath simply does not want Doherty reinterpreting anything at all in a way that can present a mythicist argument. But that is hardly a sound objection to what Doherty’s actual interpretations and arguments are.

Unfortunately McGrath does not specify which arguments or interpretations Doherty uses are faulty. In fact, as we have come to expect in these reviews, Doherty’s arguments are sidestepped. In their place McGrath reverts to pulling out arguments he has used against mythicism time and again even before reading Doherty’s book. Sometimes he claims to be informing readers of what Doherty argues, but in the following response I will quote passages from Doherty that belie McGrath’s portrayals of Doherty’s lines of reasoning.

Falls short of scholarly standards

This review of chapter 8, like other reviews by McGrath on Doherty’s book chapters, falls well short of a scholarly review. He fails to outline the contents and structure of Doherty’s argument in this chapter, and fails to quote a single phrase from Doherty himself. Readers are entirely at the mercy of McGrath’s assertions for their knowledge of what Doherty might actually be arguing and are given no evidence that the reviewer has understood or even completely read the chapter.

McGrath also presents only one side of mainstream scholarship where this might in some instances contradict Doherty and fails to inform readers that Doherty’s case is nonetheless consistent with much other mainstream scholarly interpretations that he omits to mention.

The review is also uncomfortably riddled with innuendo, ad hominem and pejorative labelling. The reviewer sets the tone early with phrases like “the chapter gets several things right”. Such condescension does not encourage confidence that the reviewer is going to hide his lack of respect for its author. Since my recent post raising Lester Grabbe’s discussion of the various ways ad hominem, innuendo and labelling have tainted scholarly debate in relation to minimalism and maximalism, I am particularly alert to seeing the same problems surfacing in McGrath’s own discussions of both minimalism and mythicism, and in this review in particular. I list examples at the end of this response.

What is the chapter about?

The only indication of the overall argument of the chapter in McGrath’s review is his introductory statement:

The main focus of chapter 8 is the idea that Paul’s Gospel and the Jesus at its center was revealed in Scripture rather than in historical events such as the life of an actual historical human person named Jesus.

Although it is true that Doherty does argue in this chapter that Paul’s Gospel and Jesus were revealed in scripture, he also explains that detailed discussions of some of the content of that revelation “will be pursued further in later chapters” (p. 90). The main focus of chapter 8 is to address the natural impediments in the thinking of many readers to the very idea that Paul’s Gospel and Jesus could be sourced from scripture rather than in historical events.

So the chapter’s focus is less the content of that gospel (a spiritual Christ or otherwise) than the fact that the gospel comes from scripture, and that the role of scripture as a window to other realities must be seen as part of the thought world of the time. This is important to grasp because McGrath expresses puzzlement when Doherty says he postpones a discussion of certain content till later, indicating he does not truly grasp the chapter’s purpose.

That is what the main focus of the chapter is and what it is about, and it is unfortunate that this has quite escaped any notice in McGrath’s review. Later we will see that McGrath confesses to being mystified by Doherty’s failure to discuss a particular point in this same chapter, but this bafflement is the consequence of his failure to grasp the overall purpose and theme of the chapter.

So to clarify what this chapter is about, here is how Doherty introduces his the argument:

One of the impediments to an acceptance of the myth theory . . . [that is] the apparent incredibility of the proposition that faith in Paul’s Jesus the Son (and by extension, the Gospel Jesus) could have arisen with no historical basis. (p. 83)

He then sums up the conclusions of his attempts to break down this natural impediment among many readers to accepting the mere possibility of Christianity not beginning with a historical figure:

It is thus reasonable to regard Christianity, in its earliest forms, not as a response to a human man, but as a religious and philosophical expression of the same nature, a product of its time, growing out of earlier phases of thought. (p. 85)

Halfway through the chapter we read that this focus is being sustained (my emphasis throughout):

A spiritual, crucified Messiah and Son of God based on readings out of scripture? Some find it hard to believe that this concept could have excited anyone without some relation to an historical event, that it could have been spread across the empire by apostles unless linked to a flesh and blood person and historical words and deeds. . . .

Those who have difficulty conceiving of a faith movement not linked to an historical man and his words and deeds are nevertheless confronted with an early record which completely ignores that historical man and his deeds, and fails to attribute any teachings to him. Whereas one can hardly turn a page of the epistles without encountering an appeal to scripture as the basis on which the writer is making his statements. Amid all the philosophical and religious influences operating during the period of incipient Christianity, it is not difficult to envision scriptural investigators constructing their own spiritual savior god from scripture, formulating a “truth” and a “salvation” along Jewish cultural lines. . . . (p. 87)

In the chapter’s conclusion Doherty sums up what he has been covering:

The analysis of this chapter has led to the conclusion that it is the sacred writings which have created the picture of the spiritual Christ and determined many of his features. This will be pursued further in later chapters. To those accustomed to the Gospel picture of a Jesus ‘meek and mild,’ imparting hope, healing and enlightened teachings in an earthly ministry, it may seem jarring to contemplate that Paul and his contemporaries could feel love and devotion to a figure who was based solely on the interpreted words of a book. (p. 90)

So this is the focus of chapter 8. It is an answer to a key question that prevents many from even considering the possibility of a nonhistorical Jesus. It addresses the thought-world of the ancients and why scripture was seen as the window to a firmer reality than anything in this world, and the significance of Paul explaining that the gospel itself came through scripture.

That is not the same as simply writing a passage about the Gospel being derived from scripture and criticizing it for not arguing another way.

Outline of the chapter

1. Revealed through sacred writings

Doherty explains that in order to be able to appreciate the plausibility of Paul’s faith having arisen apart from any link to a historical Christ it is necessary to understand the thought-world of ancient thinkers.

But we have to realize how much how much the educated ancient Jew lived within his holy books, as did many of those gentiles who attached themselves to Judaism. The Jewish scriptures offered a universe in themselves, in which the avid scholar and prophet could move and breathe. He governed his life by the writings. Like the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, he could construct whole philosophies from elements of scripture, aided at times by mystical experiences. (p. 83)

These writings, Doherty explains, were believed to have been written for the generation reading them, and were God’s revelation to them. Jews wondering what God planned for his people and how he would save them searched the scriptures. Many understood from the scriptures that God would work through an Anointed King, the Messiah. Most Jews believed he would be a human figure. But some, as we see in Daniel 7 and elsewhere such as in 1 Enoch 62:5-7, began to think of this Messiah as more than human, waiting in Heaven for the time appointed to bring about judgment and salvation.

Doherty thus suggests that it is reasonable to conclude that the many varied forms of earliest Christianity, many with beliefs in a spiritual saviour, arose not in response to a human man but out of the common religious and philosophical speculations and explorations of the scriptures of the day.

2. A Gospel from scripture

Doherty then proceeds to bring out the evidence that Paul “tells us quite clearly that he has derived his information and gospel about the Christ from the scriptures.” He shows that Paul repeatedly writes that his gospel is revealed through the scriptures, that the gospels is a mystery revealed in the last days to him through the prophetic writings.

To illustrate how Paul may have received certain ideas from the scriptures, Doherty relates several concepts found in Paul to possible origins in books like Isaiah, Hosea, Zechariah and the Psalms. Some of these passages in the OT are arguably the source of certain gospel narrative details.

3. Preaching a gospel from scripture

Here Doherty explains that though many moderns find it hard to understand how such an abstract idea of a saviour from scriptures could possibly have excited anyone enough to make them the centre of their affections. Doherty addresses this objection by pointing to the other religious ideas that both pagans and Jews became passionate about without any historical basis. Philo is discussed as one example of another Jew who found the idea of an intermediary “first-born of God” by applying Platonic philosophy to the scriptures, an idea not very far from Paul’s own idea of an intermediary Christ (though obviously without the idea of being a sacrifice for sins). Even though many find it difficult to accept such an outlook so familiar to the ancients, Doherty points out that they must nevertheless accept the fact that they are confronted with a set of New Testament epistles that constantly base their understanding of Christ on scriptures rather than any narrative events we find later in the Gospels.

4. God’s gospel of the Son

Doherty begins this section addressing the first verses of Romans “which many declare requires us to go no further . . . which unmistakably points to the concept of an historical man in Paul’s view of Christ.” (p. 87) He pulls up readers in order to ask them to examine closely the verses introducing this section, and shows that they explain some things that are not generally appreciated. The source of Paul’s gospel about the Son was the holy writings of the prophets:

  • The gospel is said to be God’s gospel
  • It was received through revelation and not through men or from Jesus or his apostles
  • The gospel was promised beforehand or announced by God
  • God announced it in the scriptures — it was all in the scriptures ahead of time waiting for the veil to be lifted and for it to be revealed to Paul.

This is critical, and I present it in some length because McGrath entirely overlooked this central point being made by Doherty. The section I highlight in bold type is worth noting now because later in McGrath’s review we find he even erroneously asserts that Doherty says something quite different, even opposite.

God in scripture had looked ahead — not to Jesus, but to the gospel that told of him.

How could Paul present things in this bizarre way? He is telling the Roman Christians that scripture contains the forecast of his apostolic gospel, not the forecast of Jesus and his life. But if God had encoded into scripture information about Jesus that would form part of Paul’s gospel, then God would have been first and foremost foretelling Jesus. We would expect Paul to say that God had announced information beforehand about Jesus, not about his own gospel.

As Paul presents it, scripture was not the prophecy of Jesus’ life and activities. It was the prophecy of the gospel which told of these activities.

In this picture, no life of Jesus has intervened between the writing of scripture and the revelation of the gospel to Paul. (p. 88)

Doherty goes on to show that this picture is not restricted to these opening verses of Romans, but is consistent throughout the epistles, even as late as the second century with the epistle of Titus. The gospel was a mystery hidden in the scriptures for generations and only revealed to Paul and others now.

Returning to the Romans passage, Doherty explains how Paul is saying here (grammatically and conceptually) that there are two specific elements of the gospel about God’s Son that are revealed through scriptures:

  1. that the Son arose from the seed of David according to the flesh [or, in the sphere of the flesh]
  2. that he was designated the Son of God in power, according to the spirit [or, in the sphere of the spirit], by his resurrection from the dead.

Doherty suggests that this entirely spiritual event (point 2) was possibly revealed to Paul through the second Psalm.

Doherty’s point here is to show that the gospel of Paul was drawn from the scriptures, and that modern readers find it difficult to grasp the extent to which ancient Jews and gentiles attracted to Judaism lived in an unseen world revealed through scriptures. Everything in this world was mirrored in the Heavens. Angelic and spirit beings populated all layers of the heavens. And the prophetic writings were God’s window into this unseen world. Ancient philosophers moved in purely mystical spheres, ancient worshipers in pagan religions devoted their lives to gods without historical backgrounds, and Jews devoted their lives to an unseen, spiritual God who had never left Heaven. With such thoughts Doherty concludes his chapter in which he attempts to address handicaps to modern thinking that make it difficult to accept the mere possibility that Christianity could have been born without a historical Jesus.

So that is the focus of the chapter that McGrath claims he is reviewing.

The old “But IF” argument

McGrath continues:

The chapter gets several things right and mentions important information about the context of earliest Christianity – and yet consistently manages to interpret those details as leading to mythicism. For instance, Doherty rightly emphasizes the importance and indeed centrality of Scripture for many Jews in this period, and that there were groups that interpreted prophetic texts as referring to themselves and their own experiences (p.84). The Qumran community are presumably the example par excellence of this phenomenon. Doherty somehow never seems to realize that, if the earliest Christians were similar, this would naturally fit a scenario in which they interpreted prophetic texts as referring to their own historical experiences, including of a historical Jesus.

I don’t quite know how to respond to this. McGrath has simply ignored what Doherty argues and complained that he does not see things his way.

This is an odd “criticism” if one can call it that at all. All McGrath has said here is that he has a different way of looking at things, and that if the early Christians were like the Qumran community then they would have used the scriptures to interpret their historical experiences.

What Doherty has pointed out in his attempt to demonstrate the possibility that Christianity could indeed have arisen from imaginations immersed in the unseen world and its scriptural window, and not necessarily from a historical event, is that Christianity could have been like the communities associated with the Enochian literature, and its thinkers could have been like the creative Philo, etc. So McGrath criticism is to ignore all of this and simply say they could have been like the Qumran community.

So his criticism of Doherty here is that Doherty has a different view – he “somehow never seems to realize” that McGrath’s view is quite reasonable. Lay readers would find more to gain from a scholarly review that actually addressed and rebutted Doherty’s arguments.

But in fact when I do read what Doherty writes I find it hard to see what McGrath would fault. McGrath does not quote anything of Doherty or cite a particular argument or statement of his to help me here. It is true that Doherty does not specifically discuss the Qumran community, but he does speak of a wide constellation of Jewish views, including the “mainstream” Jewish views. He addresses the ideas of the Q community as it evolved in the latter part of the first century, those responsible for the texts of 1 Enoch’s Similitudes, 4 Ezra, the book of Revelation, and of course the ideas behind Daniel 7.

Doherty’s discussion certainly implies that he is fully aware that some Jewish groups clearly used scriptures to interpret their own historical experiences:

Thus the writings of the prophets were regarded not as meant for their own time, not as relating to conditions they themselves had lived through (which, of course, in all cases they were), but as prophecies of the future. Inevitably, that future was taken to be the period of those who were studying these writings. God’s prophetic message was meant for themselves. . . . Some of the same scriptural passages which more ‘mainstream’ Jews interpreted as referring to a future human Messiah . . . . Although it is often pointed out that mainstream Jews of the time drew no doctrine of a sacrificed Messiah from their sacred writings, it does not follow that no one did. (pp. 84-5)

3 sentences, 5 mistakes

McGrath continues:

Part of the problem is presumably that Doherty has bought hook, line and sinker the Christian apologists’ claim that Jesus is predicted precisely in prophecy (p.86). Were this in fact the case, then it would be natural to suspect that Jesus was invented or at least radically rewritten to accomplish this precise agreement. But in fact, the agreement is far less precise than apologists would have you believe, and while critical scholarship has highlighted this time and again, mythicism shows itself to be uncritical and naive at this particular point.

McGrath here confuses apples and pears, drops in a dash of ad hominem for good measure, prejudices the argument by a gratuitous association of Doherty with “Christian apologists”, generalizes Doherty’s supposed argument to conform to a stereotypical construct of McGrath’s own imagination, and charges Doherty with saying the exact opposite of what he does say. That’s a lot for McGrath to pack into just three sentences.

Take the last sin first. I highlighted a passage in the section above outlining what the chapter was about. This was the passage that demonstrates that Doherty does NOT say Paul’s Jesus was the gospel found encoded in the scriptures. That was the point of Doherty’s argument, yet here McGrath is for some reason saying that Doherty has “bought hook, line and sinker the Christian apologist’s claim that Jesus is predicted precisely in prophecy”. Without meaning to be unkind, it really does appear that Doherty’s arguments are so unexpectedly different from anything McGrath has ever contemplated or encountered that he simply cannot grasp what Doherty is saying. It appears he latches on to a few familiar-sounding passages in Doherty, adjusts them to his preconceived notions of what he thinks “mythicists” (generically!) argue, and does not know how to do anything else with Doherty’s book.

But let’s look at some specifics about what is said, without going over again what McGrath has failed to understand or address.

I am assuming that by “less precise” McGrath means that the context and meaning of the OT references have been modified to make them fit into their NT context.

If so, then of course the agreement between OT prophecies and Gospel narrative details are often “less precise than apologists would have you believe” – and it hardly requires “critical scholarship” to discover that obvious truism! Doherty at no point suggests or intimates anything different.

Again McGrath has quite simply ignored Doherty’s argument. Doherty is saying that New Testament authors turned to the Old Testament as a source for their beliefs or understanding of their present situation, and NOT that everything they found in the OT was a precise fit to all that came out at the end.

Let’s see what some of the “fits” that Doherty discusses are and whether or not they validate McGrath’s criticism. I discuss passages relating to Isaiah 53 later, so leave that one aside for now.

For most Jews, the Messiah would be a human figure, though one destined to be exalted by God. For others, however, the agent of salvation became more spiritual. The “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 offered itself as a divine, or semi-divine savior figure. In the latter 1st century, such an End-time agent of God surfaces in Q and the Book of Revelation, and eventually in all the canonical Gospels. Among Jewish sects he puts in an appearance in the documents 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch . . . . (p. 84)

Or if McGrath is denying that there are any specific details in the Gospels that are traced to the OT then he is wrong. But I cannot believe he means this. The New Testament writers themselves explicitly state that they get some of their details from the OT.

The Gospel of John 19:37 calls attention to this verse [Zechariah 12:10] as a scriptural text which Christ has fulfilled. (p. 86)

What Doherty does argue is that the matching of OT prophecies with narrative details was a messy business, with “bits and pieces from here and there” in the OT woven into a larger whole.

Scripture did not contain any full-blown crucified Messiah, but it did contain all the required ingredients. (p. 87)

But what Doherty argues does not make sense of McGrath’s complaint that Doherty misguidedly finds precise agreements between OT passages and their NT applications. Does not “critical scholarship” itself argue that the disciples of Jesus found their Messiah in the scriptures in order to rationalize his unexpected death and their disappointment? Crossan is one of several “critical scholars” who does not even believe that there were any witnesses to Jesus’ death from among his followers, and that all the details of the crucifixion were stitched together from OT prophecies. This is the exact process of Gospel narrative creation that Doherty himself is arguing.

Isaiah 53 and the Servant of Isaiah

A case in point is Isaiah 53. Doherty does not appear to have investigated the text in any detail, or even to have read it in a more careful manner than Christian apologists do. He sees, as they do, a precise prefigurement of Jesus, never mentioning that the servant in the “Servant Songs” of Deutero-Isaiah is explicitly said to be Israel, nor ever noticing that Isaiah 53 fits Christian interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death, rather than the details narrated about that death itself, whether in epistles or Gospels. While Doherty reads Paul through the lens of Christian interpreters and thinks that he may have derived from Isaiah 53 the key elements of his Gospel, a critical reader would note the lack of explicit citations from or unambiguous allusions to Isaiah 53 in Paul’s letters.

Once again, mythicism is engaging the Jesus of Christian faith and apologetics, and thinking that it is dealing with the subject of the historical figure of Jesus.

McGrath does not quote Doherty to support his criticism here so it is hard for me to know what words of Doherty he has in mind. I can find nothing in Doherty’s chapter that suggests Doherty interprets Isaiah 53 as “a precise prefigurement of Jesus”, or where he fails to notice that the passage “fits Christian interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death”. The whole thrust of Doherty’s discussion has escaped any notice in McGrath’s review. As for McGrath accusing Doherty of not appearing “to have investigated the text in any detail”, one must wonder how much more detail he wants when Doherty refers to current scholarly views about the passage and compares specific Greek words in its LXX version with possibly related passages in the epistles.

Doherty has two references to Isaiah 53 in this chapter, and they are embedded among other scriptural passages in a discussion about Paul’s own statement that he derived his gospel from the scriptures. This is the main theme and point of Doherty’s chapter yet McGrath’s review fails to address this argument.

It sometimes takes a while to grasp an argument that is completely new, or to know how to handle a ball that comes from an unanticipated angle. It is very easy when confronted with such situations to fall back on the familiar and continue arguing from that perspective. So McGrath argues as IF Doherty were saying something he is not.

Here is what Doherty in fact wrote as part of a larger argument addressing Paul’s claim to have derived his Gospel from the scriptures. I suggest that, after reading McGrath’s criticism as quoted above, one pause for a moment to imagine what sort of thing Doherty would appear to have written in relation to Isaiah 53, and then compare the impressions they gain from that review with the following words that Doherty did actually write:

Although it is often pointed out that mainstream Jews of the time drew no doctrine of a sacrificed Messiah from their sacred writings, it does not follow that no one did. For Paul’s gospel that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” we need look no further than Isaiah 53 to see the probable passages Paul is speaking of . . . .

Although the writer of Second Isaiah (Isa. 40-55) in this so-called Suffering Servant Song was speaking of a contemporary prophet – perhaps even of himself, though some suggest that this passage is by others, after he suffered death – for early Christians Isaiah 52:13-53:12 was a loaded passage. It became a source for all sorts of theology and information, first about the spiritual Christ, and then for the fabricated passion story of the Gospels. Paul hardly needed more than this one passage, saturated with the concept of God delivering up the “Servant” (Greek pais, also translatable as child or son), to come up with his gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:3.

The verb in Isaiah 53 for “delivering up” in the context of God doing the delivering is the same as that used in 1 Corinthians 11:23, in Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper: “on the night he was delivered up.” This may indicate that Paul has formulated his ‘myth’ of the Lord’s Supper under the influence of scripture and perceived revelation; it suggests that his thought in the latter passage should not be seen as having the historical scene of the Gospels in mind, with Judas involved in the ‘delivering up’ in a scene of betrayal and arrest. As will be seen in Chapter 11 when examining this passage, the implication is that the “delivering” there is also by God. (pp. 85-86)

Is there anything here that McGrath or any mainstream biblical scholar would disagree with, or protest is not also found expressed among colleagues?

The range of scholarly understanding of Isaiah 53 is actually much wider than indicated in this criticism which also avoids any reference to the way the passage was understood among Jewish sects in the Second Temple period. In a recent post I did discuss a scholarly article by Ulrich Berges that presented a history of the scholarship on the Servant passages in Isaiah. As this article shows, and as I outline in my post, one thing is clear: though there are passages in Isaiah that explicitly identify the Servant as the nation of Israel, there are other passages that clearly do not so identify the Servant, and that definitely do suggest a person. And some of the details about that person Servant are inconsistent with any identity as a nation. The explanation is not so simplistic as McGrath indicates and I recommend the article to him.

Fails to assume the argument from silence

Doherty also notes in this chapter that the Messiah was, in terms of the origin of the concept at least, a human figure. While Doherty rightly notes that some (most famously the Similitudes of Enoch) came to think of this figure as kept in heaven, prepared for the day of salvation, he wrongly assumes that this was at odds with or in contradiction to the expectation that the figure would appear in human history.

However, I suggest that McGrath really finds no fault with what Doherty actually writes about the Similitudes since he fails to address Doherty’s point. McGrath seems to protest that the Similitudes do not necessarily contradict the idea of many Jews that the expected Messiah would appear in human history. But Doherty does not disagree — in fact it’s what he himself says:

For most Jews, the Messiah would be a human figure . . . (p. 84)

. . . more mainstream Jews interpreted [the same scriptural passages] as referring to a future human Messiah . . . (p. 85)

Yes, one may interpret the Similitudes in a way that does not technically contradict the idea the Son of Man Messiah was to appear “in human history” in the sense of having a career like the one found in the Gospels, but Doherty focuses on what the Similitudes in fact DO say, not only what they might allow by virtue of their silence. I am surprised McGrath here approves of an argument from silence in order to argue that the Similitudes do not contradict the idea that the Messiah will come to have a Gospel-like career that Jesus had on earth.

I am also quite surprised that Dr McGrath apparently elides the Similitudes with mainstream Jewish views and Messianic expectations. Other scholars (e.g. Margaret Barker) have strongly argued that, significant though they were, they did not represent the mainstream (whatever that might have been) of Second Temple Judaism. Criticisms of the Temple cult appear to point in that direction.

So here is what Doherty discusses in relation to what the Similitudes DO say, and not what their silence allows for:

Among Jewish sects he [the “son of man” figure] puts in an appearance in the documents 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch, showing that even purely Jewish groups had begun to envision a Messiah figure who was more than human, someone waiting in Heaven for the great day to arrive when he would bring about God’s salvation of the righteous . . . .

Some scholars see this section of 1 Enoch (37-71, the “Similitudes”) as a Christian composition, presuming to identify its Son of Man as a Christian element. But this, along with the concept of a heavenly Messiah, should be seen as ideas not exclusively Christian but of Jewish sectarian provenance. This heavenly Son of Man reached the Gospels and Jesus through the Q community which, taking a page from presidents indicated in Enoch and ultimately Daniel, expected his coming at the imminent End-time they were preaching. When the Q community, as we shall see, developed a founder figure and applied its expected Son of Man to him, he was ready to enter the Gospels as embodied in the human Jesus. Mark expanded on his significance and role. (p. 84)

Never reason, just repeat yourself

A more natural connection to draw between the background texts Doherty cites and early Christian texts would have been to understand the early Christians to have looked back and found their experiences and expectations for the future prefigured and predicted in Scripture.

McGrath may view things that way, but just repeating his own interpretation does nothing to argue against Doherty’s own arguments that have brought him to an alternative conclusion:

It is thus reasonable to regard Christianity, in its earliest forms, not as a response to a human man, but as a religious and philosophical expression of the same nature, a product of its time, growing out of earlier phases of thought. . . . Some of the same scriptural passages which more ‘mainstream’ Jews interpreted as referring to a future human Messiah were seen as pointing to a spiritual Christ (Christos), a Son of God waiting in Heaven for the End-time when he would appear on earth. (p. 85)

Terminology and midrash

Without providing any example or quotation from Earl Doherty, James McGrath claims Doherty does not understand the term “midrash” and has built a false argument upon his ignorance:

Doherty repeats the common misunderstanding of Midrash as a firm of Jewish literature that combined Scriptural texts into a new narrative. I am going to venture a guess that Doherty has never read an actual work of Jewish Midrash. The ongoing perpetuation of this misunderstanding is unfortunate. If Doherty had wanted to find a parallel to the “discovery” of celestial rather than historical “realities” in Scriptures, he would have done better to spend less time discussing prophecies and misunderstanding Midrash, and instead focused more time on the Platonic allegorizing approach of Philo. The latter is a poorer fit with most of the New Testament, but at least Doherty would have chosen a cookie-cutter mould that was in the shape he was trying to force the New Testament evidence to take. [Do a word search to see the times I have pointed out that Doherty does indeed discuss Philo’s relevance in this connection.]

It is probably instructive to note that McGrath also recently criticized Bishop John Shelby’s Spong’s use of the term “midrash”, but in fact it was McGrath who failed to demonstrate awareness of the actual way Spong used and explained the word. In explaining his use of the term “midrashic” to describe a certain process of composition, Spong pointed out that he was not saying the Gospels were midrash, because midrash was a term used to describe a type of literature different from the Gospels. But because of certain similarities in processes and techniques he was using the term “midrashic”. (If my understanding is correct, Spong early on did appear to use midrash with some imprecision, but in subsequent publications he corrected that.)

If Doherty has really misused the term as McGrath says then one should note that McGrath also believes other scholars who also accept the historicity of Jesus have misused the term if he wishes to be fair in his treatment of “mythicism” in general and Doherty in particular. But I am not sure that Doherty has misused the term. Rather, it appears that McGrath has spoken presumptuously.

Doherty does not call the Gospels or the Christian narrative “midrash” (at least not in this chapter) even though McGrath implies that he does. Here is what Doherty wrote, and that McGrath failed to appreciate:

One of the features of scriptural study in this period was the practice of taking individual passages and verses, bits and pieces from here and there, and weaving them into a larger whole. Such a sum was much greater than its parts. This could be one of the procedures in “midrash,” a Jewish method of interpreting and making use of the sacred writings. . . . This bringing together of widely separate scriptural references and deriving meanings and scenarios from their combination was the secret to creating the early Christian message. Scripture did not contain any full-blown crucified Messiah, but it did contain all the required ingredients. Jewish midrash was the process by which the Christian recipe was put together and baked into the doctrine of the divine Son who had been crucified for salvation. (pp. 86-7)

McGrath fails to point out what, exactly, Doherty gets wrong here and does not even quote part of the passage to support his criticism.

The “could have been different” argument

McGrath then writes:

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the issues of whether Paul believed Jesus to have been a human figure who appeared in history, and whether he derived them from Scripture, are at any rate separable. Paul could presumably have derived belief in a human terrestrial Messiah from Scripture in the same manner that Doherty posits that he derived a purely celestial one.

In theory, yes, anything is possible. He could have. McGrath does not say that he thinks Paul did derive a belief in a human terrestrial Messiah from scriptures. But this does not sound to me like a very cogent rebuttal to Doherty’s arguments to the contrary — particularly in that last 35% to 40% of the chapter that McGrath overlooks in his review.

Inexplicable or uncomprehending?

There are many other problematic points that could be mentioned, including the claim that Jesus can be of the Davidic line in the celestial realm, but since Doherty once again inexplicably postpones his treatment of this key claim until later, I will do the same.

Inexplicably postpones? Not inexplicable at all to one who took note of the focus of the chapter as pointed out above.

McGrath fails to grasp that Doherty’s chapter is about the source of revelation, thus postponing a detailed analysis of its content to a later chapter.

But what I do find inexplicable is McGrath’s ignoring the last approximate 40% of the chapter. This is where Doherty does discuss the critical background to the passage about Jesus being of the Davidic line, and is the major single argument in the entire chapter, and one that makes Doherty’s argument most distinctive compared with other mythicist arguments. Yet McGrath fails to even mention it.

Three puffs and the house falls down?

McGrath concludes:

So let me close by mentioning once again the dubious character of Doherty’s claim that “Jesus” was “an ideal and natural name for a savior deity” because it means “Yahweh saves” (p.85). This ignores (1) the fact that most Hebrew names had some such religious meaning and would have served equally well, (2) that this is a common human name and such names were not normally given to celestial beings, and (3) those who were most likely to care about the meaning “Yahweh saves” were those least likely to invent a “savior deity” other than Yahweh himself.

Doherty does include two sentences in this chapter (approx 4000 words?) in which he suggests that “some . . . though not all” earliest Christians attributed to a heavenly Christ “the name “Jesus” (Joshua/Yeshua), the name of the deliverer under Moses who conquered the Promised Land. The name means “Yahweh Saves” and makes an ideal and natural name for a savior deity.” (p. 85)

McGrath’s three objections do little to undermine Doherty’s suggestion.

  1. Yes, no doubt there were other names that could have been chosen. (Personally I don’t know many that would be as good as Joshua as a successor to the Moses cult but I am sure others could have been chosen.) But “could have been different” is not a strong argument at the best of times.
  2. And yes, it was a common human name and it may not have been usual to give a common human name to a celestial being, but let’s not forget the ancient love of gematria, and let’s not assume that an event must fit a common pattern if we are to believe it happened at all.
  3. The last criticism of McGrath’s here is based on a false dichotomy and is also another one of those fallacies of arguing ignorance. At least one scholar has even suggested that Jesus was identified with the Yahweh god of the Old Testament, and McGrath is well aware of the many complex nuances of identities and relationships among divine beings found within Second Temple Judaism and beyond.

And so, once again, the only points that are accurate and/or of value in this chapter can be found in mainstream scholarship, not so unhelpfully obscured by being intermingled with error, misuse of terminology, and unpersuasive arguments as they are here.

This is an odd conclusion. It does read as if McGrath has been reading Doherty’s chapter like an examiner marking a school paper to give ticks to the right answers and crosses to the wrong ones. And where Doherty “gets things right” McGrath protests that he (and most scholars) read the same evidence differently. Yes, they do. But if Doherty agreed with them there would be no book, no challenge in the first place. It is the very fact of such a fundamentally radical challenge that appears to be incomprehensible to the reviewer.

Innuendo, ad hominem and pejorative labelling


Part of the problem is presumably that Doherty has bought hook, line and sinker the Christian apologists’ claim that Jesus is predicted precisely in prophecy (p.86).

while critical scholarship has highlighted this time and again, mythicism shows itself to be uncritical and naive at this particular point. (Here we have ad hominem and pejorative labeling. McGrath regularly slips in and out of references to “mythicism” as if “mythicism” is the author of the book. Thus McGrath shows us that he is attacking “mythicism”, which he always uses as a pejorative label whether others always do or not, and not reviewing Doherty’s words at all. Doherty’s arguments are quite distinct and few are found among “mythicist” publications generally.)

Doherty does not appear to have investigated the text in any detail, or even to have read it in a more careful manner than Christian apologists do. (Ad hominem innuendo and arguing through the fallacy of pejorative association.)

a critical reader would note the lack of explicit citations from or unambiguous allusions to Isaiah 53 in Paul’s letters. (Instead of arguing the point McGrath’s innuendo is that Doherty is not critical in his reading.)

Once again, mythicism is engaging the Jesus of Christian faith and apologetics, and thinking that it is dealing with the subject of the historical figure of Jesus.

I am going to venture a guess that Doherty has never read an actual work of Jewish Midrash.

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14 thoughts on “Doherty’s Chapter 8 in outline & Review of McGrath’s review”

    For instance, Doherty rightly emphasizes the importance and indeed centrality of Scripture for many Jews in this period, and that there were groups that interpreted prophetic texts as referring to themselves and their own experiences (p.84). The Qumran community are presumably the example par excellence of this phenomenon.

    Is this because the Qumran community did not believe in a Son of God coming to Earth to found their community?

  2. “A more natural connection to draw between the background texts Doherty cites and early Christian texts would have been to understand the early Christians to have looked back and found their experiences and expectations for the future prefigured and predicted in Scripture.”

    McGrath, in this review says that Doherty was buying the arguments of apologists hook, line and sinker. Yet this is the argument of street preachers and apologists everywhere. The idea that the scriptures actually did prefigure an actual historical Jesus is the credulousness at the heart of the historical Jesus hypothesis that continually surfaces when you investigate it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fundie, a liberal protestant, a Catholic or even the atheists like Tim O’Neill or Tommy Baker, they all assume that the scriptures foretold with some accuracy the actual life of Jesus. It makes some sense for two or three of those groups to think so.

    1. McGrath makes a valid point.

      You only have to glance at Romans 10 to find Paul use vast amounts of scripture to describe the situation of the present and the history of the recent past.

      But nowhere does he use any scripture to describe rejection of the message of Jesus. He uses scripture to describe the rejection of Christian preaching about Jesus, and uses scripture to describe how Christians needed to be sent to preach about Jesus, because that was the way Jews heard about Jesus – through Christians sent to preach about him.

    2. This is crazy. I don’t know why we even bother, but I do. The crazy thing is that biblical studies is not for many scholars, probably most, about academic study in the sense of any other academic study. When you see a Doctor of Theology post commendations on his blog for readers to turn to articles reassuring people that most scholars are not trying to “destroy the Bible” and that rules for Bible study include acknowledging that it is a “divine book” and that we must let it “disturb/move” us and one needs to understand how “bible prophecy” really works — then you know that this is not a scholar in the normal sense of the word.


    3. McG: “A more natural connection to draw between the background texts Doherty cites and early Christian texts would have been to understand the early Christians to have looked back and found their experiences and expectations for the future prefigured and predicted in Scripture.” (emphasis added)

      Bart Ehrman frequently makes this argument. After the crucifixion the disciples sat together, stunned and bewildered. “What in the world just happened?” they asked. They found their answers by cobbling together esoteric interpretations of scripture. But is that what they really did?

      All modern New Testaments begin with the Gospel of Matthew who starts off with several implausible events surrounding the birth of Jesus. I would wager most current NT scholars do not believe the Flight into Egypt or the Slaughter of the Innocents really happened. Matthew provides biblical proof texts to show how they predicted the events he’s relating, but clearly it’s his intent to show Jesus as the New Moses that has compelled him to invention. The event didn’t spur Matthew to find a verse that fits. On the contrary, it was his knowledge of the Torah that guided his construction.

      So early on in the canon we see descriptions of events that didn’t happen, but in the believers’ minds “should have happened.” I submit that given the evidence at hand it is just as “natural” to understand that early Christians had a free hand in creating events and sayings that they wanted to be true as it is to understand that they looked back to the scriptures to explain and illuminate real events.

      McG’s argument falls flat.

    1. “not wasting time unravelling McG’s inability to comprehend.”

      I find your critiques of McGrath to be quite interesting and educational.

      Although I do understand your frustration at having to constantly rebut the same bad arguments.

      1. Once I started responding to his posts I find myself in a position where I feel I must continue. It is important that there is something “out there” that does offer an alternative opinion — especially since McGrath has some status as an academic.

        McGrath, of course, puts the flack on me for “defending Doherty”. I am attempting to defend what he writes against outright falsehood. It’s an awkward position, because there are a few times where I do have other views myself. So far I have mostly kept those back from the posts because my intent was to clear away McGrath’s failures as an honest intellectual from what Doherty actually says.

        For example, my own view is that the “son of David” reference etc in Romans is an anti-Marcionite interpolation. Doherty is much more (sensibly and wisely) conservative in his treatments of the texts than I am.

  3. McGrath has responded to my post saying that my post is actually an attempt to “detract from the key issues”. He has said that Doherty’s wrong “definition of midrash” is a “substantive issue”. I replied of course, but it is astonishing how he can think it is I who am attempting to detract from the substantive issues in Doherty’s arguments, and that he is the one tackling the “substantive issues”.


    I also find it interesting — maybe I’m reading too much into it — that McG’s review was so quickly hidden with a rush of other blog posts and quickly found itself on the second page of his blog. He also removed his original conclusion. I wonder if that was in response to his reading my own posts about ad hominem in scholarly debate.

    Maybe he is just more interested in getting his blog to number one again for the coming month in the new biblioblogging club. It’s a crazy game they play — whacking out as many posts a day to increase their hits to win the month’s “prize” of a moment’s fame. I suppose theologians don’t lead otherwise very interesting lives.

  4. My posting on the Matrix in response to Jim’s Chapter 8 review:

    Jim: “Doherty’s discussion certainly implies that he is fully aware that some Jewish groups clearly used scriptures to interpret their own historical experiences.”

    Which is precisely what I have presented Paul & Co. as doing. Scripture looked ahead to their own historical experiences. But what were those “experiences”? Their experiences were of the beliefs and revelations within their own community. That is the picture which the epistles present. Paul says it directly in Romans 1. The prophetic scriptures foretold the revelations from scripture which Paul and his contemporary apostles of the Christ were granted. They did not foretell a god-man redeemer who had lived in their recent past and performed his salvific acts on earth.

    Jim: “Doherty somehow never seems to realize that, if the earliest Christians were similar, this would naturally fit a scenario in which they interpreted prophetic texts as referring to their own historical experiences, including of a historical Jesus.”

    Ah, but…his “including of a historical Jesus” is something Jim has tacked on to serve his own preconceptions; it is never demonstrated in the epistolary texts. The ‘prophetic scriptures’ are never identified as a prophecy of events that had taken place in Jesus’ life on earth. No comparison is made between scripture and history, no equation of the one with the other. The equation is made between scripture and Paul’s preached gospel [i]about[/i] the Son, as we see in Romans 1 and in Hebrews, a Son and sacrifice that is never located at a time and place in history.

    McGrath claims that there is nothing in the Similitudes, in its portrayal of the Messiah/Son of Man waiting in heaven, to preclude the possibility of a career on earth. But that’s like saying that there is nothing in the Gospel story to preclude the possibility that before his ministry in Palestine started Jesus travelled to China and America. The point is, there is nothing in the record to suggest that he DID make such travels. If he had, and this were known, would we expect the early Christian record to contain no hint of such a thing? If the heavenly Son of Man in the Similitudes were known to have had, or was going to have, a career on earth, would the document contain not a hint of such a thing and merely forecast his arrival on earth to effect judgment on the ‘kings, governors and landlords’, much as the epistles foresee an arrival of Christ at the Parousia to sit in judgment, and none beforehand in any other capacity or incarnation?

    And again, that same old bugaboo about not presenting every element of the evidence pro and con all crammed into one chapter (earlier it was expected, and criticized for being missing, in an earlier chapter). A case in regard to anything has to be laid out piece by piece, hopefully in an order which makes sense of the whole and usually progressing from basics to more nitty-gritty. McGrath’s ‘objection’ that I am “apparently postponing discussion of counter-evidence to (my) view” is preposterous. We will see how he deals with coming material which will make much more demands on him than anything to date.

    And he steadfastly refuses to answer Neil’s insistence that he demonstrate how I have misused the terminology of “midrash”. That, of course, is because it is all bluster, as is so much of his supposed ‘counter-argument’ which has no substance to back it up. The same goes for McGrath’s floundering about in regard to whether a passage like Isaiah 53 actually contains the ingredients for the sacrifice myth of the Christ cult, as well as for elements of the Gospel Passion story. If ancient Christians themselves could see the passage as prefiguring Jesus’ experience, what does it matter whether modern theologians/NT scholars can pick holes in that process? We are talking about what the ancient first Christians did and how we can recognize that. Once again, there is no actual substance to McGrath’s criticism and his attempts to neuter my contention that Paul & Co. are dependent on scripture for their entire gospel about the Son go nowhere.

    GakuseiDon also chimed in with the same mantra:

    “Yes, I found the same when reading through Doherty’s book. Why address Christian apologetic arguments at all? It only adds to the length of the book, and I doubt that many peer-reviewed articles address apologetic arguments. It makes the book appear unscholarly.”

    To the extent that the early Christian process of deriving the Son from scripture mirrors the naivete and practices of modern apologists, it is anything BUT unscholarly to deal with that process. That it coincides with modern apologetics (and uninformed public faith, for the most part) is basically happenstance. Don actually is advocating that we do the very thing he is so adamant to condemn in my book: that I am allegedly imposing what “we” would expect on the ancients. And yet he wants me to address only what modern critical scholars have to say on the matter, and then somehow read that into the mindset and interpretations of the first Christians! That will really get us to the heart of those ancient beliefs, won’t it?

    And good ol’ Mike W. had his usual two cents as well:

    “As some one who once thought the prophecies proved Jesus was Christ, and having been slowly forced to accept that logically this is not so, Doherty’s silly arguments to the contrary have no sway. for people unfamiliar with New Testament scholarship this will seem convincing since they still assume that the old prophets exactly predict Jesus.”

    Of course, they didn’t “exactly predict Jesus,” and Jim (with Mike & Co. blindly in tow) misrepresenting me as claiming such a thing doesn’t make it so. Besides, as someone pointed out, early Christian commentators like Justin, along with the epistle of Barnabas and others, believed exactly that. The Jews’ failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah predicted in scripture was (along with being “Christ-killers”) the basis of their condemnation. Isn’t that what we should be addressing, not the red herring of what modern New Testament scholarship can perceive? It would be like ignoring what the ancient Greeks believed for centuries about the Trojan War, based on Homer, and substituting what modern archaeology has revealed to arrive at the ancient picture of that War. Is that what you would advocate, Mike, and Don, and Jim, that we understand ancient Greek views of their own mythology according to what we moderns know about it and its basis? That we impose our modern post-scientific and post-enlightenment knowledge on what the ancients believed? (That is what I advised against in my book, Don, something you have consistently insisted on misunderstanding and misapplying.) What a bizarre suggestion!

    I will echo Neil, Jim, and suggest that you really need to present, accurately and honestly, what I actually argue in my book, not your preferred and distorted version of it which just happens to lend itself to your criticisms. But then, that’s what strawmen do so well, don’t they?

  5. Earl thanks for mentioning Justin’s treatment of Isaiah. I think this really is one of those prediction points that show the difference between the HJ and MJ hypotheses. If we believe there was an HJ, facts about his life should be presented and sources for those facts given and then after those are established, the case for the prophecies being fulfilled can be made (Matthew does this regularly), but Justin does just the opposite. He quotes Isaiah and then is done. In his first apology he simply cites Isaiah as a historical source for Jesus. This not only confirms your point, Earl, but it positively disconfirms McGrath’s criticism. If Justin were doing what McGrath says he is doing, he couldn’t have written the first apology, which uses NONE of the gospels as sources, but sources the entire story to the LXX.

  6. My world is a little unsettled right now, so I haven’t got the mind to do any research or hard thinking at the moment, but I am curious if anyone can answer some questions that arise in my mind as I think about early Christian “beliefs.” I’m not trying to challenge anyone, I just have questions and wonder what others think.

    Were there any other differences between the beliefs of Paul and “Jewish Christians” besides whether it was necessary to observe the Torah to be saved? Were they otherwise on the same page about a mythical Jesus? What exactly did both “sides” have in common? 1 Cor. 15 comes to mind. But what was the different gospel and different Jesus that Paul appears to ascribe to James’ group in 2 Cor. 11?

    1. Others can probably offer more than I can. I still need to catch up with a refresher on my notes and books on Jewish Christianity, but from memory I think the main difficulty in comparisons is the lateness of the sources for “Jewish Christianity” compared with Paul — especially if we take Paul as a first century source. I’m less optimistic than Eisenman that we can dig back to first century sources for the details of a James’ cult.

      1. The lateness of Jewish Christian sources is a reasonable objection, which is why I will only insist on the
        beliefs of “Jamesians” that can be seen through the eyes of Paul, which appear to have involved a different Jesus and a different gospel in addition to a different opinion of the value of the Torah.

        I could be understanding 2 Cor. 11 and similar verses incorrectly, and I’m open to what others might think of them. In light of the discussion of early Christian beliefs, these indications of a first century division between Paul and Jewish Christians make me wonder to what extent they shared the same “beliefs” about Jesus.

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